The only thing that's been as dominant as the Warriors' face-melting offense this NBA season has been the Spurs' impenetrable defense. Naturally, that's what everyone wanted to see on Saturday: could Golden State again light up the best opposition the league has seen in years? The answer was a resounding no.
Saturday's loss in San Antonio notched just about every low mark for the Warriors offense this season. Not only was it Golden State's lowest-scoring game of the season, but the Warriors had their season lows in points per possession, effective field goal percentage and True Shooting percentage. It was the lowest-possession game of the season for the Warriors and had the second-fewest free throw attempts this year.
In January, Stephen Curry danced with every defender the Spurs threw at him, even silent titan Kawhi Leonard. In that game, the Warriors looked unstoppable and the Spurs looked a step too slow to keep up with modern basketball's most chaotic and skilled team. The reverse was true on Saturday. Golden State's typical violent frenzy was subdued by its mirror image on defense. The Spurs flew around to cover gaps and make Curry, Draymond Green and the Warriors' facilitators think twice about how they wanted to attack.
Let's recognize just how much work the Spurs had to do just to slow up the Warriors. Leonard, Danny Green and LaMarcus Aldridge trapped and switched like crazy. When Aldridge, who started at center in place of a healthy Tim Duncan, wasn't out chasing Curry around the perimeter, he was forced to cover the rim as San Antonio attempted to force dribble penetration to minimize three-pointers.
As a result, the Warriors scored on a good number of drives. But the math checks out: two is less than three. The Spurs don't foul, and Aldridge, Boris Diaw and Duncan (in his eight minutes of action) challenged most attempts near the rim.
Leonard is the perfect defender. He might have been created in a CalTech lab; we're going to need to see some baby pictures to be sure. Kawhi has not just the incredible physical attributes -- the length, the hands, the quickness, the strength -- but his brain is locked in to every rotation every possession. I counted one missed or late rotation in 39 minutes, and it led to a Green dunk -- crucially, not a three.
Traps present a defensive risk. By double-teaming the ball out on the perimeter, you're leaving three defenders to deal with four potential scorers and a lot of daylight. It's an especially perilous gambit against the Warriors, who thrive on chaos, have good passers everywhere and have a green light to shoot from deep. Yet Kawhi's special gifts, awareness and endurance allow him to recover from those traps and get back into the play within two passes or a pass and a dribble. At one point deep in the fourth, Kawhi helped trap Curry all the way out near midcourt and still recovered to get into the play.
Aldridge is not nearly as quick as Kawhi, obviously, and even his mental acuity seems a beat slower. But his effort on defense Saturday was phenomenal. Forget any suggestion that Aldridge might not be able to play big minutes against the Warriors after that January meltdown in Oakland. LaMarcus Aldridge is not Kevin Love. Aldridge might say he doesn't like playing center, but against the Warriors (who were without Andrew Bogut, among others) he doesn't really have to. He matched up against Harrison Barnes mostly with spates across from Mo Speights and Anderson Varejao. (Leonard took Green much of the game.) Barnes wasn't terribly active, which saved Aldridge some trouble, but the Warriors went to a bevy of Barnes-Curry screen rolls to get Aldridge switched onto the presumptive MVP.
That's where Aldridge had to do work. He did: he gave up one well-contested stepback three to Chef Curry, one that felt like a familiar omen that Steph was preparing to rain hellfire upon the Spurs. But, like another Warriors rival in the West, San Antonio doesn't flinch. The Spurs kept up the gameplan and held Curry and the Warriors in check. Aldridge and the frequent help funneled Curry down the lane and challenged him there. Passing lanes typically open were closed. San Antonio never lost focus, never lost their calm and kept the Warriors from being the Warriors.
Golden State will punch back, but probably not until the playoffs. These teams play twice more in the regular season, but both matches are in the final week. We know how Gregg Popovich handles those games, and while the allure of a perfect home record -- the Spurs are currently 35-0 in S.A. -- seems worth chasing, there's no chance the coach cares enough to risk injury or his treasured game plan. The likelihood of seeing the these teams do real battle again before May is extremely low.
So, with all due respect to the Thunder, Clippers and lower half of the West bracket, we're left with nothing but hope we see these teams face off with everything at stake in two months' time.
For now, we must be content in knowing the Warriors aren't quite as invincible as they seem and that the season hasn't yet been settled.